When Serena Williams beat Dinara Safina at the 2009 Australian Open in one of the worst Grand Slam finals in memory, it was hard to recall a time when women's tennis had been at a lower ebb. With Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin in retirement, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in decline and Maria Sharapova in rehabilitation following shoulder surgery, a lacklustre Safina looked the best bet among a poor crop of challengers to the continuing supremacy of the Williams sisters.
However, as the new season kicks off 12 months later, the landscape could hardly be more different. Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka are the standard bearers for a new generation of players, Ivanovic is aiming for a fresh start under a new fitness coach and Sharapova is hoping that her injury problems are behind her. Best of all, the two women who put Belgium on top of the tennis world are back on the court.
Henin announced her return shortly after Clijsters crowned her stunning comeback by claiming her second Grand Slam title at the US Open in September. Henin begins what she calls her second career on the Sony Ericsson women's tour alongside Clijsters at this week's Brisbane International, where her first match will be against Nadia Petrova, the No 2 seed. She has also been given wild cards to compete at Sydney next week and at the Australian Open beginning in Melbourne in 15 days' time.
On the face of it, Henin, unlike Clijsters, has everything to lose. Although Clijsters had two brief spells at the top of the world rankings, she never dominated the game in the way that Henin did, by winning seven Grand Slam titles. Henin won 41 out of 42 matches between the start of the 2007 French Open and that year's season-ending championships, but retired just before she was due to defend her Roland Garros title, saying she was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. She was the first player to quit when world No 1.
Henin says she is now refreshed and better equipped to handle life on the tour, recognising the need to emerge occasionally from her "bubble" of concentration on her tennis. Having always had to work harder than her opponents because of her slender frame, she also believes that she can prolong her career by being more aggressive on the court and shortening her points.
"I don't have the feeling that I have anything to lose or to prove to anyone else," she said. "Maybe I have things to prove to myself – the fact that I want to live my tennis life differently this time around. I feel tennis is still part of myself. I'm sure that if I work hard, find the same motivation and become the same competitor that I was, then I can be a success."
Does she think it will be harder second time around? "I don't know. It will be different, that's for sure. We have to say that nobody really took the lead after I retired – maybe Serena, but she hasn't been very consistent. People like it when there's someone at the top and everyone else chasing. The men have had that with Roger Federer for a long time and I did it for a while too. I think the game needs that.
"There's a new generation coming through and it's a very exciting time, though I haven't followed the game that much over the last two years. There's still the Venus-Serena generation, Kim has come back, Sharapova is still young and is coming back. Then there are the new ones like Wozniacki, Azarenka and others. It will be interesting, but I'll really need a few months to feel my way back."
Federer's achievement last year in winning the French Open, which was the only Grand Slam title to have eluded him, prompted Henin's first thoughts of a return. Wimbledon is the only jewel missing from the 27-year-old Belgian's Grand Slam crown, although she reached two finals at the All England Club, losing to Venus Williams in three sets in 2001 and to Amélie Mauresmo by the same margin five years later. She thinks she can go one better in her second coming and believes she would not have to compromise her chances of winning at her beloved Roland Garros a month earlier to do so.
"I don't think I've failed to win Wimbledon in the past for physical reasons," Henin said. "It was because I didn't trust myself as a grass-court player. I've been in positions where I could have won Wimbledon. In 2006 I'd won the French and got to the final at Wimbledon. I won the first set 6-2 against Mauresmo, I had everything in my hands and just had to keep going for one or two more sets, but I probably didn't believe enough that I could win it. The problem was mental."